Guest editorial: Seamanship at the heart of safety
Lookout! Issue 25, June 2012
Some basic boating skills were learned the hard way, but many mishaps were avoided by heeding advice freely given by more experienced boaties, and by observing the actions and attitudes of others on the water. Some set a good example, others less so.
We lost the family runabout when a spark from the radio ignited petrol fumes. In hindsight, stowing the fire-extinguisher under a foam seat, and the lifejackets where they could be soaked in petrol when the fuel expanded in the sun, weren't the brightest ideas. As I say, some lessons are learned the hard way.
To gain experience and sea time, I crewed on various potting, long-lining and trawling commercial fishing vessels out of Milford Sound and Port Chalmers.
Many of the guys I worked with came from fishing families, and the job was ‘in the blood’. I noticed a distinct contrast between how safe I felt on some boats compared with others, and it largely came down to the attitude and behaviour of the skipper, which extended to the condition of the vessel.
None broke down or suffered any other incident while I was aboard, all were handled with skill, all the skippers were very experienced. Nevertheless, a range of overall ‘seamanship’ was evident.
Between the days of the runabout and my first ‘real’ job of commercial diving, I undertook postgraduate study in science. My grandfather had been a traffic cop, so I was used to a rules-based approach to life.
It’s no surprise, then, that I attempted to rationalise ‘seamanship’ when I came to prepare for my first skippers’ ticket, because it wasn’t ‘in my blood’.
‘Seamanship’ is a rather hazy term. Ask any boatie or professional mariner what it means, and you’ll get a different answer every time. Even the dictionaries vary. The Oxford Dictionary definition leans towards ship and boat-handling skills. Collins Dictionary is broader, including skill and knowledge in navigation, maintenance and operation of a vessel. Noah Webster described seamanship as the skill of a good seaman, applicable to officers and men.
My personal take on seamanship is both broader and simpler. I think good seamanship is making sound decisions in relation to a vessel with regard to the circumstances, best practice and any regulations, and the skill to follow those decisions through with actions that reflect creditably on the seafarer.
It occurred to me that the law should, in intent at least, be a distillation of the principles of seamanship. I started with reading the Maritime Transport Act, then the maritime rules (all of them – heaven help me). Then I read every relevant book I could lay my hands on.
I did my first ticket by workbook and distance learning, and the subsequent ones by traditional courses. On every course I learned important information or got advice that I would otherwise have been unaware of.
The Restricted Radar Observer course, in particular, taught me how little I really knew about using radar – after several years of thinking I had it nailed. The real value of structured training is that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ until your knowledge gaps are made clear to you. It’s better that this happens to you in a classroom than at sea.
After a few years skippering tourist launches and water taxis and getting back into recreational boating, like most skippers I still made a few dubious decisions, but fortunately no real harm was done.
It was pointed out to me by an employer that most incidents and near-misses could be avoided by a bit of ‘what if?’ thinking by the skipper before situations developed, and I started to apply that to my own thinking, making it a habit. As I cruised around, I would often think “where’s the nearest beaching point if I’m holed?&ldquo, “what if the steering seized right now?”, "can I anchor before I’m blown into a lee shore if the engine stops?”, “what if that un-flagged boat has a diver between them and the shore?” and so on.
Developing my seamanship still has a long way to go and we should never stop learning and seeking to improve ourselves, but I think at least I now have the attitude part of it right.
In my current role as Tasman District Harbourmaster, I am pleased to be able to make a hands-on contribution to navigational safety. A stretch of coast in my patch seasonally experiences some of the highest concentrations of recreational boating and water taxi traffic in the country and, unfortunately, I regularly witness or hear about examples of poor seamanship.
Despite the best efforts of MNZ, harbourmasters and Coastguard units around the country, many recreational boaties in particular have scant knowledge of, or regard for, the principles of good seamanship. It appears that there is no political appetite to require recreational boats to carry the range of equipment required of commercial vessels, even basics such as charts – nor for boaties to undertake any formal training or licencing.
Boaties need to realise that with the privilege of the relatively unregulated activity of boating (compared with, for example, driving a car) comes a responsibility. That responsibility can best be summed up as the expectation to exhibit ‘good seamanship’.
At the least, all boaties should make the effort to read and understand Maritime Rule Parts 22 (Collision Prevention) and 91 (Navigation Safety), and any navigation safety bylaws for the region they are boating in, and obey these rules.
My basic advice is to carry and use the largest scale up to date chart of the area you are boating in. If you are new to an area, seek advice from locals, especially about selecting anchorages and anchoring tackle and techniques. If you are new to a type of boating, join a suitable club to benefit from the experience of other members. And, as you don’t know what you don’t know, consider taking a relevant boating education course to help identify any knowledge gaps.
If you’re a commercial skipper, you’ll tend to have plenty of experience and a high level of vessel handling skills, but think about whether it’s time you refreshed your understanding of the maritime rules. This is all part of good seamanship in my opinion, and should be as routine as doing your regular safety drills.
You should also consider that your actions not only reflect on the reputation of your company, but that others consider you a role model. Often when I stop a boatie for taking a risky route, or speeding where it is not appropriate, their excuse is that they saw the commercial guys doing it.
Being professional in your demeanour and actions is all part of good seamanship. And if your seaman-like actions result in another boatie avoiding an unsafe situation by following your example, that may even save a life.
As I write this, I have been following the news coverage of the loss of FV K-Cee in Fiordland and, most likely, her two crew. One of them was a mate of mine when we both worked from Milford Sound about a decade ago, the other was more of an acquaintance, his voice easier to recall from our radio conversations than his face.
Both were respected practitioners in their chosen field – rock lobster fishing in Fiordland. This is a tough job – a high degree of skill is required to make a go of extracting the crays from the rocks. The vessel was well found and equipped, the skipper experienced, and still something has clearly gone very wrong. I don’t presume to speculate on what that was. All those who put to sea know that she is unforgiving. I would have no hesitation in describing both of the men aboard K-Cee as having a high degree of ‘seamanship’ in the context of inshore fishing in Fiordland.
Skill, experience and the right equipment tip the odds in your favour, but ticking all those boxes still doesn’t guarantee you’ll come home. Please take care out there.
Steve Hainstock, Regional Harbourmaster
Tasman District Council